This excursion is taken from parts of a week-long family vacation to Rocky Mountain Park. I'd arranged to rent a vacation home in Estes Park, CO, and the rest of the family (my three kids, their spouses, and three grandchildren) were to meet me there on Sunday afternoon. I left on Friday morning and planned to follow the BNSF for much of my trip through Nebraska and eastern Colorado.
A friend in Denver e-mailed me on Wednesday to alert me to a wildfire that had started in the area of Big Elk Meadow, just a few miles down Hwy. 36 from Estes Park. This fire grew to 4400 acres, was within three miles and had required some evacuations by the time the we all arrived in Estes Park on Sunday afternoon. Fortunately, a combination of fire fighting efforts and changes in the weather brought the fire under control early in the week, evacuees were able to return to their homes, and our trip was not affected by the blaze. Sadly, one of the planes fighting the fire crashed on Thursday evening, killing the crew, Rick Schwartz and Milt Stollak. My sincere condolences go out to the families of these firefighters.
(July 31 - I just learned that there was another fatality, pilot Leonard Knight, last night when a helicopter working on the above fire crashed near Rock Mountain Park.)
All times given in the account below are Central Daylight.
A second call to Julie put the Zephyr another ten minutes down, so I decided to try intercepting it out to the west at Cromwell or Prescott. At 8:50, I heard the Omaha Line dispatcher, B.K.S., say that "...number six is just leaving Nodaway", so I figured that the overpass near Prescott would be a good spot. The passenger train came around the corner west of the bridge at 9:04. AMTK 57 was in the lead as the train passed under me and headed up the hill. A detector reported the length today at 90 axles. From the radio I knew that the passenger train was passing a coal load, and before long the turnout at the east end of the two-main section switched over to Main 2.
The coal load ran into some signal trouble but finally got rolling and came into sight at 9:18. This was a distributed power AEPX load with BNSF 9732 on the point. This last shot shows the VHF antenna (just above the loco's cab) used for signal and turnout control in this area and also shows a jog in the rails where the single track lines up with Main 1 of the former double track route. A few minutes later, the rear unit of the train, BNSF 9700, came through and headed up the hill.
I proceeded westward on Hwy. 34, keeping track of things on the radio, but didn't intercept any more traffic until 10:30 near Hastings. There I found a ribbon rail train with caboose 12622 and BNSF 3194.
My next stop was in Pacific Junction where a stack train had come up from the south and was crossing in front of me by the time I got to the west end of town at 10:54. I hurried across the Missouri River with the train on the bridge beside me and intercepted them in Plattsmouth just after 11:00. The stacker was pulled by BN 9239 and BNSF 7850.
I went north out of Plattsmouth to Oreapolis in hopes of catching the stack train again, but a track inspector found a problem in the UP diamond, so the train was stopped for a time and eventually given a 10 mph slow order. Instead of waiting, I headed on west to Ashland. By noon, the temperature had climbed to 96 degrees.
In Ashland I found two manifests. There was a westbound with BNSF 5434, BNSF 6501 and cabless ATSF 332, and an eastbound that was just getting ready to leave with a long set of engines. On the eastbound were BNSF 4876, 6211, 2554, 2913 and 2700. They pulled out of town at 12:15.
I picked up some lunch in Lincoln and went to have a look at the Amtrak Depot, but found it closed on Fridays. I took a picture of the CB&Q steamer on display and at a line of boxcars representing BN's heritage (CB&Q, SP&S, SLSF, GN, NP and BN) parked between the platform and the tracks. There was also a caboose, apparently BN 10200, at the end of the line of boxcars.
By now (1:30), the temperature was a blistering 102 degrees in southeast Nebraska, so I spent most of the rest of the afternoon in the Jeep, making short stops and monitoring what little train traffic there was on the radio. Crete, 2:04 p.m. - 104 degrees, spotted BNSF 2160. Harvard, 3:20 p.m. - Eastbound manifest, detector "One Zero Five Degrees." I got to Hastings and checked into my motel around 3:30. Still 105, spotted BNSF 2192, 2271, 2256 and EMDX 756 in the yard.. After checking in and having a look around Hastings, I headed west on 34.
A short eastbound local surprised me just west of Funk at 5:45. On the point were BN 2303 and 2812. They had a caboose, BN 10723, I think. A detector put them at 124 axles and the temperature at 98 degrees.
My next stop was just before 6:00 in Holdrege. I always have to check out the Zephyr Cafe here. It's not open for breakfast or supper - maybe they do lunch? I'll have to time my visit differently next time. I want this sign. Yes, I've considered larceny - if you know someone here and how I might purchase it, please let me know.
From Holdrege I drove north to Kearney and stopped for supper before going to the UP triple-track for some "fish-in-a-barrel" train-watching. The UP didn't disappoint - a MARX empty was going under the viaduct when I got to the rails at 7:30 and it met a UP load just as I got trackside. I paced the load, with UP 8014 and SP 344, out of town a short distance until I could see a westbound coming toward us. The westbound was another MARX empty, led by UP 7259 and 7117.
I jumped back in the car and drove about 5 minutes to the east, watching for the next westbound and passing 8014 again. The westbound was a KCLX train with UP 6693 and 7062 in charge. The two trains met in front of me at 7:46.
I drove on and stopped next just east of Gibbon where the UP line splits, with sets of double tracks going east toward Grand Island and southeast toward Hastings. UP 8014 arrived at the busy junction first, and headed down the Marysville subdivision. A minute later, I had a westbound on the Kearney line, an intermodal with UP 4904, 4916 and 9335. As the stacker and the coal load passed me in opposite directions, another train could be seen approaching from the west on the center track.
The rear unit of 8104's train, UP 6631, came by first. It was followed by a mostly-intermodal consist on the north track of the Marysville line behind UP 4234, 4962 and 4214, around the corner at 8:00.
At this point I left the junction and started east on Hwy. 30 again, but I didn't get far before I spotted another westbound. This was a solid consist of CCLX covered hoppers behind UP 4073, 9135 and 9344. The next westbound was intercepted near Wood River at 8:20. This was another coal empty, WPSX cars with UP 6507 and another unit I missed.
AMTK 175, 87 and 174As it would turn out, Byron and I would see this same train eastbound on Tuesday.
Transition Sleeper 39028
Sleepers 32031 and 32077 (District of Columbia)
Sightseer Lounge 33016
Coaches 31515, 34061, 34031 and 34037
1 Boxcar, 1 ExpressTrak
Material Car 1444
5 Boxcars and 5 Roadrailers
No. 6 came in at 4:26 - here's some video of its arrival (5.7 Meg .MOV file). The consist:
AMTK 165, 90 and 75By now I was considering breakfast, but decided it might be better to catch another hour or so of sleep first. I settled for the continental breakfast at the motel and was loaded out and ready to to go north to Grand Island just before 8:00 when I heard the dispatcher say, "The DENGAL's just out of Hartwell". After checking my DeLorme, I decided I'd better go downtown and catch this one.
Coaches 34095, 34080 and 31514
Sightseer Lounge 33028
Sleepers 32049 and 32078
Material Car 1435
5 ExpressTrak, 1 Boxcar and 7 Roadrailers.
A couple of trains were waiting in the Hastings yard on the DENGAL, which was to stop and drop off a couple of locomotives. The train showed up at 8:25 with BNSF 110, 2955, 5343, 4663 and 5283. The last two were set out at the east end of the yard. The lead unit was interesting - the first of the Santa Fe GP-60M's that I'd seen in the new BNSF paint scheme. The DENGAL hit a detector on the way in and had 466 axles before dropping the 12 in Hastings. The same detector
My plan for the day was to follow the Ravenna line northwest to Alliance, where I had a motel reservation for Saturday night. I went to Grand Island and drove west along old Hwy. 30, but didn't see any traffic on the UP this morning. Just west of Gibbon I turned north for the short hop up to Ravenna. Ravenna, once called "Fort Banishment" is today the site of a large village of BNSF crew dorms on a busy route for unit coal trains out of eastern Wyoming.
The rails are paralleled fairly closely by Hwy. 2, so it is easy to intercept the rail traffic as you drive. I left Ravenna at about 10:25, and caught the following trains on the way to Alliance:
10:37 - Near Hazard, UCEX load with
9486 and 9652
10:43 - Near Hazard, Eastbound manifest with BNSF 4628, 7044 and 8638
10:59 - Near Mason City, FSTX load with BNSF 9425 and BNSF 9647 (a.k.a. the "Barf Bonnet"!)
11:05 - West of Mason City, AEPX load, DP, with BNSF 9854 and 9948
11:13 - West of Mason City, KCLX load with BNSF 9548, 4773, KCS 2029, BNSF 4180, 974 and 4848
The detector at MP 156.5 reported this last train at 542 axles, and the "Ambient Temperature, Nine Six Degrees". I noticed while listening to detectors and eyeballing the traffic that the two-main track sections are operated left-handed here with the westbounds using the track nearer the highway (south rail) that is designated "Main 2".
At this point I took a lunch break in Broken Bow, a huge city by northwest Nebraska standards, with fast food and everything. While I ate my take-out at a shady spot by the rails (all the detectors were reporting over 100 degrees by now), an empty with BNSF 8936, 9720 and BN tub gons passed me.
12:13 - I catch up with the rear of the Broken Bow empty
12:29 - Near Anselmo, CEFX load, DP, BNSF 5399 front, BNSF 4713 rear
12:31 - Lunchtime empty meets the above train, BNSF 8936 and 9720
12:40 - West of Anselmo, KCLX load, BNSF 9763 and 9424
I then skipped a couple of photo-ops and just watched two loads go by: The first was an AEPX train with BNSF 9829 in front and 9723 trailing. West of Halsey there was another KCLX load with BNSF 9802 and 9528.
1:33 - Near Norway, ETRX load, DP, BNSF
9933 lead, BNSF 9814 rear
1:45 - Seneca - time zone changes to Mountain, Elevation 3100'
2:00 - Near Mullen, catch westbound WFAX hoppers, surprised by intermodal with BNSF 7329 and BN 7823
2:05 - Windshield shot of WFAX empty
2:09 - Ahead of WFAX empty, BN 9549 and 9596
I let one go - KCLX tubs with BNSF 8979 and 9918 - and made a pit stop in Hyannis. The WFAX empty almost caught up, but I got out of town ahead of them.
3:07 - West of Hyannis, NSPX load,
DP, BN 9704 and 9537 lead, BNSF
3:14 - Eastbound manifest, BNSF 5385 and 6386
3:19 - DEEX load, DP, BNSF 9762 and 9717 lead, BNSF 9951 rear
3:27 - CEFX load, BNSF 9439 and BN 9632
3:33 - JHMX load, DP, BNSF 9812 and BNSF 9747, missed rear unit account passing empty.
In spite of the 105 degree temperatures, I stopped, parked the Jeep with the rear to the sun and waited on an empty and a manifest that I knew were coming behind me.
3:40 - KCLX? empty, BN
9619 and 9639
3:49 - Westbound manifest, BNSF 4361 and BNSF 4553, with airplane parts and fuselage
4:04 - East Alliance, Elevation 3956', ???? load, BNSF 8838 and BN 9621 - 105 degrees, but nice clouds!
Alliance has a couple of large yards and a locomotive shop. I considered prowling around and trying to get some pictures but it was just too damn hot this afternoon. Late in the evening we had a shower and the temperature dropped into the 80's so I went out around 9:00 (8:00 local) for a few shots. I hit the south yard first, spotting this nice clean old SD near the viaduct. An empty with BN 9571 and 9564 was just pulling into the yard at the same time.
I next went to the east end of the north yard and walked up onto the highway bridge for some pictures there:
EMD 9019 and ATSF 622
BNSF 5300, 6352 and 9885
The last shot of the day was this, at 9:15, looking west at the lineup of coal loads waiting to head down to Ravenna.
I left Alliance around 8:00 in a light rain and drove southwest on Route 385 toward Bridgeport. It was a pleasant 69 degrees this morning. Before long I intercepted a couple of trains. I met BNSF 8270, BNSF 9570 and BNSF 9449 with a DEEX load just south of town at 8:14. In five minutes I met UP 8185, BN 9224, EMD 9072 and BN 9296 with JECX empties. It's odd how loads and empties can move in the same direction on this line! "Free" enterprise, I guess...
Just as I reached Bridgeport at 8:45, another empty was heading north toward Alliance. This train had UP 8144, UP 8298 and BN 9493 and was pulling NCUX cars. At the Bridgeport BNSF yard, I found a manifest with EMD 9066, BNSF 6957, BNSF 4690 and EMD 9069. According to some radio traffic, the crew on UP 8185 that I'd met earlier was to come back down here in a van and take this one north to Alliance.
I continued south on 385, heading for Sidney, Sterling, Brush and points west. I stopped along the way to get an image of a couple of "Oakways", EMD 9068 and 9067 on a ballast train parked at Gurley. After a quick pit stop in Sidney I made the border at 10:25. "Welcome to Colorful Colorado". Elevation 4432'. Please add 5 mph to your rate of travel!
I made Sterling about 10:50 and stopped for some pictures of a few locos
at the east end of the yard:
BN 9572 and BNSF 8962 on a coal load
BNSF 4664, 5223 and 519 on a manifest
BNSF 5340, 6375, ATSF 568 and BNSF 7168
Just southwest of Sterling at 11:05 I intercepted a GBRX empty with BNSF 8905, 8826 and 9973.
I stopped for lunch in Brush - there's a nice shady spot here just south of the depot that seems to be a regular stop for me on these trips. Today there was a ribbon rail train heading east right at noon with BNSF 4738 and 6921.
I spotted a couple of coal trains from Hwy. 34 between Brush and Wiggins, but didn't try to stop for pictures. I followed 34 on west and could see the plumes of smoke from the Big Elk fire by the time I got to the west side of Greeley just after 1:00. On the radio I could hear a UP dispatcher trying to get No. 5 through a mess on the way up to Moffat Tunnel. A coal load had broken a coupler an was getting help to put the train back together while the Zephyr waited.
The drive up the Big Thompson Canyon was uneventful but beautiful as usual! I watched the temperature drop from 85 in Loveland to 65 in Estes Park when I arrived at 2:20. You could smell pine smoke in the air - I'd forgotten that it's not an unpleasant smell. I went to the realty office and picked up the keys to our family home for the week. By 3:00 I was ready and waiting, and by 4:30 the whole gang had arrived safely.
We did find quite a bit of smoke in the air on Monday morning (local sunrise). A temperature inversion had held the smoke down, but the accompanying humidity, overcast sky and light rains on Monday and Tuesday helped in fighting the fire. By Wednesday there was no noticeable evidence of the fire in the park.
Monday was given over to recovering from our trip and to a walk around Bear Lake. Byron, Tammy and I continued on to Alberta Falls. I also went to check out the former residence of my great aunt and uncle, Georgia and Kenneth Rich. These folks were my familial and originally, my spiritual connection to Rocky Mountain Park. I visited them many times when I was a boy, as did my children when they were growing up. Kenneth and Georgia's house was for sale, so I called the realtor to inquire. This place, sold in 1981 for $60,000, now had an asking price of $297,000!
Wednesday morning, my three kids and I hiked to the mountain lake where I took their mother's ashes a couple of summers ago. In the afternoon the whole entourage took two vehicles and drove Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine visitor's center.
Thursday was a miscellaneous lie-about and shop for souvenirs day. Friday morning my daughter and her family started back home. Byron, Tammy and I took the Jeep up Fall River Road to the Alpine center. In all my visits, I'd never had a chance to follow this route into the park. Either it was back in the days when only 4WD vehicles were allowed, or I was here early enough in the season for the road to still be snowed in. It's a beautiful trip, with a wilderness feel completely different from Trail Ridge because you stay in the trees most of the way up.
Saturday the rest of us (three households) packed out and were on the road by about 9:30. Byron passed me between Loveland and Greeley and I didn't see them again. I did make my usual stop for lunch in Brush and caught a CWEX empty, powered by BNSF 8257 and 9852. Close to 7:00 p.m., Aaron spotted me on I-80 in Council Bluffs as he was leaving a restaurant. He caught up with me a few minutes later in western Iowa and we caravan'd on home to Indianola, arriving about 9:15. I'd added 2352 miles to the Jeep's odometer since Friday the 19th.
I'm so grateful to my kids for getting together for this vacation -
it was a wonderful week and I pray that we get to do it again soon!
At 10:20, the empty started west out of Granby. We took off leading them and headed into Beyers Canyon on Hwy. 40. At Hot Sulphur Springs, just "Sulphur" on the railroad, we waited for some maintenance equipment to clear up. The highway, river and railroad run closely parallel here, and there are plenty of great photo locations, provided you're not too picky about wires. In addition to the usual signal wires, the north side of tracks has a slide fence, designed so that any falling rocks large enough to represent a hazard to the trains will break a wire, dropping the signals and notifying the dispatcher. Curves are sharp here, keeping the train speed down, so it's pretty easy to chase a train through the canyon.
Between Beyers and Gore canyons there's a straight run through Kremmling. We caught the train again there at 11:20 at the Hwy. 9 overpass as it approached and passed a set of "Pumpkins" in the siding. Byron and I then went south on 9 a short distance and then went west on "1 Road", a combination of asphalt and gravel sections following the south ridge of Gore Canyon, while the rails stayed below by the Colorado River. This was the more entertaining part of the drive, hurrying along with the train out of sight, hoping to beat it to a good photo location.
At 11:30 we pulled up on a scenic curve, far above the rails. For comparison purposes and to give you an idea of how far away we actually were from the train, I took a shot with the equivalent of a 50 mm focal length (on a 35 mm camera) and then with full telephoto, equivalent to 380 mm. Note that the short tunnel is visible in both pictures. I got a couple of shots as the head end approached East Azure and held the main there. I then switched to video and made this panned shot of the entire train (5.4 Meg .MOV file).
"1 Road" then wanders away from the rails for a while before intersecting with a road into Radium (we'll visit Radium on the way back) and with "Trough Road", which we followed on over to State Bridge and then to Bond, where the Craig branch cuts off.
Our train reached Bond at 12:45 and stopped to wait for a relief crew to arrive from Phippsburg. The new crew arrived almost an hour later and Byron and I got ready to get pictures of the empty heading up the Craig Branch. However, once the new crew was aboard 6432 and in conversation with the dispatcher, they found that they did not have the bulletins they needed. New ones had been sent but left behind in Phippsburg, voiding the ones that were on the loco. The inbound crew, already a distance up the road toward Phippsburg, volunteered to drive back to the Bond depot, pick up a new set from the FAX machine and bring them to the loco.
It was almost 2:00 when 6432 came around the corner and started up the steep grade that begins the Craig line. I got a video clip (6.4 Meg .MOV file) of the locos crossing Hwy. 131, and then Byron and I headed for McCoy to take 4 Road back into the Crater Loops. We intercepted the train again at 2:20 as it started into the giant "ess" curve called Crater Loops. After watching the train negotiate these two long turns that twice completely reverse its direction of travel, we sped on ahead of it and took a one lane dirt road (4A Road) around to the northwest side of the cinder pit mine called Crater.
At this point 6432 was delayed again, this time by maintenance equipment working near Volcano that had to clear so that the train could take the siding to meet an eastbound load coming down from Phippsburg. At 2:48 they reappeared from behind Crater and turned back to the northeast into Rock Creek Canyon. One minute passed between the time the last car went around the corner and the time that the head end emerged from Tunnel 48. We watched from a mile away as the train headed out onto "Twin Bridges", the object of last year's excursion into this area with Paul Speer and the late Dennis Williams.
Byron and I knew that our empty would be waiting in the siding for an opposing train, and also knew from the radio that both Zephyrs, 6 and 5, were approaching back on the mainline. (We were out of contact with "Julie", this being a "No Svc" area on the Jeephone.) We decided to try to catch Amtrak instead of going after the eastbound coal load.
We drove back to State Bridge and hung out there for a while, then moved on along "Trough Road" to a spot east of Yarmony. While waiting there and watching the rafters on the Colorado, we monitored the radio to try to keep track of the location of the two passenger trains. Maintenance equipment cleared up at Yarmony just before 4:00, and at that time we heard that the trains would be meeting at Radium. They were planning "two spots" there so that some luggage hauled-by Glenwood Springs could be passed from 6 to 5, and so that some additional linens could be passed from one train to the other as well.
We decided to go for Radium. We hurried - the gravel might still be in the air, I'm not sure. However, the exchange of bags and sheets between the trains was being accomplished at the west end of the siding, out of our sight when we got to Radium. We had to settle for No. 6, which came by the grade crossing in Radium at 4:45. This turned out to be pretty much the same train I'd seen westbound at Hastings early Saturday morning. The consist:
AMTK 175, 87 and 174After the train cleared the grade crossing, we were off to chase it through Gore Canyon on 1 Road. We went to the same overlook just east of Azure siding and got a few shots as the train slowly threaded its way along the north wall of the canyon.
Transition Sleeper 39028
Coaches 34031, 34061 and 35515
Sightseer Lounge 33016
Sleepers 32077 and 32031
Bi-level Commuter cars MTDX 8720, 8724, 8709, 8713 and 7671
One ExpressTrak and one more Boxcar
On the straight-away through Kremmling we heard a detector report the train at "eight one miles per hour", and they did get well ahead of us, but once the Zephyr was in Beyers Canyon, we easily overtook it. Soon we were stopping to watch from the highway as No. 6 passed along the slide fences and sharp turns. Our last look at the train was as it came into Granby for a station stop at 5:52.
Byron and I then drove back through the park over Trail Ridge Road again. There was rain much of the way and a little sleet as we passed the 12,000 foot summit. The rain was good news, however, helping to put down the Big Elk fire which had reached a point just a few miles southeast of the park.
On our return "home" to the rest of the family in Estes Park we were asked if we'd seen many trains (the usual question), and we realized that there'd been only two. It had somehow seemed like a lot of train-watching, though - a great day in the Rockies!